Sugar cane research in the heart of Meringa

By: Col Jackson

Presented by

Propagation of new sugar cane varieties has taken on an entirely new connotation at Meringa, south of Cairns. COL JACKSON joins a party of international journalists for a tour of the Sugar Research Australia (SRA) facility.

Sugar cane research in the heart of Meringa
Sugar cane varieties in potted conditions at the Sugar Research Australia (SRA) facility.

Since 1917, research into varieties essential to the sustainability of the Australian sugar cane industry has centred on an area of fertile land near Gordonvale in north Queensland, just south of Cairns.

The Sugar Research Australia (SRA) facility was established as the first and only entomological station within the Queensland Government’s Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations.

Its initial role was to research insect pests, and in the 1930s became a sugar cane breeding facility.

The facility is charged with carrying-out breeding programs for the entire sugar cane industry in this country, and has played an integral part in cross-pollination, natural field and photosynthesis cross-breeding.

While the visit took place at the end of the season, it presented an opportunity to understand an industry that contributes wealth and prosperity to many communities across Australia, especially in the tropical north.


Developing a new breed

Maringa Sugar Research Station _Felicity Atkin 6718
Plant breeder Felicity Atkin describes the sugar cane breeding process.

 The intensely high-tech centre incorporates fields of sugar cane that have started as seedlings grown from true seed obtained from crossings that are then planted in the field for assessment.

It takes more than 10 years, 100,000 plant crosses and 33,000 bags of sugar seed annually to introduce a new sugar cane variety into the field, thus the SRA is integral to the overall varietal development picture.

Then there are enormous sheds that enable breeding to be ongoing under controlled conditions.

It was pointed-out that imported plants don’t have much use in Australia, thus the facility is essential to the local industry.

It can take up to 15 years to develop a variety, especially when looking for disease-resistant ratoonability.

Crossing of varieties is not easy, and depends on parentage and pedigree.


Breeding process

Essential to the breeding program are the ‘honeymoon suites’ where new varieties are allowed to ‘do their thing’.

It is within a shed of bag-like ‘lanterns’ — in rows and all specifically catalogued — that female and male flowers are positioned to facilitate pollen transfer and prevent contamination.

The ‘lanterns’ are filled with sugar cane crosses; it is a fully automated process utilising artificial sunlight and night conditions.

Maringa Sugar Research Station _breeding Lanterns
Lanterns in the ‘honeymoon suite’ of the SRA facility.

To stop pollen infiltration from the commercial operation adjacent, the breeding area is encased inside a tropical jungle surround to filter air-borne contaminants.

To maintain the ‘romantic’ theme, Valentine’s Day is a significant day in the breeding cycle of sugar cane due to the changes in daylight time at this latitude.

SRA pathologists constantly screen potential new varieties for disease resistance, pointing out that diseases are heritable.

Plant breeder Felicity Atkin describes sugar cane breeding as "one of the most genetically complex crops.

"We have a global project in place to map the sugar cane genome," she says, hinting that working with wheat is much less complex.

"And we use a flowering agent; there are commercial operators who don’t like flowering."


Heritage listed

Commercial harvesters and weighing equipment allow the cane yield to be measured. Sucrose content or commercial content of sugar (CCS) is analysed by Near Infrared Spectroscopy (NIR).

Meringa Sugar Experiment Station has been entered into the Queensland Heritage Register.

According to Queensland Heritage Council (QHC) member, George Seymour, the Meringa SES "is a product of the Queensland Government’s efforts to assist the Queensland sugar industry, which has played a vital role in boosting Queensland’s economy since the 1860s.

"In 1935 the Meringa SES bred the first cane toads released in Queensland, and from 1945, experiments with the insecticide benzene hexachloride (BHC) at Meringa were successful in controlling the sugar cane pest, the greyback grub."

Maringa -sugar -research -station _Vivien -Dunne
Vivien Dunne started in the sugar industry in 1982 as a Lab Assistant in a sugar mill, a much sought-after job. Now, 34 years later, she is plant breeding senior technician at the Sugar Research Australia (SRA) facility at Meringa, south of Cairns.

Seymour says many of the buildings are of cultural heritage significance.

"These buildings are the main components of a sugar experiment station that has evolved, and continues to evolve, over time," he enthuses.

"The crossing facility (1977-80) and the photoperiod facility (1986-2008) are important evidence of leading technological advancements in the plant breeding program."


Future of Meringa SES

George Seymour describes the site as having a long and special association with Queensland’s Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations, which played a crucial role in the development of the Queensland and Australian sugar industry from 1900 to 2003.

"During the lifetime of the Meringa SES, a number of scientists whose work has been of importance to the Queensland sugar industry have been associated with the place."

"The Meringa SES is currently the major plant breeding station for the Australian sugar industry, and the only location where field crosses of sugar cane varieties are made," Seymour says.

"Sugar Research Australia is working with the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to finalise a heritage agreement that will manage the heritage values of the site going forward.

"SRA regard their scientific achievements as ‘living heritage’ and have commissioned a conservation management plan that will guide the overall management of the place into the future."

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